Designing album covers in the age of Spotify is just as important as the vinyl wonder years
When artist Mike Braid was designing the cover for alternative rock band Villainy’s Raised in the Dark album it was a process of zooming in, zooming out, and then seeing what the design looked like on a mobile phone.
The album, released in July, features the four band members’ faces covered in tape, the photos appearing as if they’ve been stuck down. The treatment comes from the idea of the filtered life and artificial reality the internet has given people.
“It was not the most flattering photos, not trying to make the most beautiful thing. It was trying to get people to second guess a little bit,” Braid says. “Start with something perfect and then take away all that perfection.”
Braid had known the band for years and had been a frequent collaborator, so it made sense that he created the art for Raised In The Dark but through the process he was conscious that while vinyl was the “holy grail” of album artwork, it also had to work in a digital format.
“Every time I’m trying something out I zoom out and make it Spotify size,” Braid says. “A lot of the work I’ll export out and then load it on to my phone, have a look on my phone in a Spotify template, to see, ‘how does that work?’… you’re trying to distil a project, visually.”
Something special happens when you get a new album and you see that cover art for the first time. It’s the beginning of a long relationship between the listener, the music, the art and the musician. Well, that’s how it once was, before digital music services kicked in the door and didn’t look back.
Now, instead of being able to pick up, touch and examine the artwork we’re more likely to be looking at a thumbnail-sized representation of cover art on a finger-print smeared smartphone. But, if you ask any of the finalists in the album artwork category at this year’s Vodafone New Zealand Music Awards Artisan Awards, creating eye-catching album artwork is just as important as ever.
Braid says musicians today don’t just focus on an album and leave it at that – now there are multiple media touchpoints they have to hit, and a band almost becomes a brand.
Album art is an integral part of the overall offering, regardless of the dominant digital age.
“It’s still about a good idea and a way of summing up an album. It’s got to complement the music so in terms of the core idea of what it represents it hasn’t changed.”
Dick Frizzell’s long and storied career has often been intertwined with music, and he is no stranger to creating work for New Zealand musicians, from Dragon to Human Instinct and Ticket. This year he’s a finalist in the artisan awards, along with collaborator Tim Harper, for his work on a charity album called Offerings, a collection of classic hymns sung by New Zealand performers.
The album was 17 years in the making and the cover features a band playing in a circle in the middle of a suburban street. Frizzell, whose Kiwiana themes have become iconic, describes the atmosphere as “plaintive” and notes the long grass on either side of the road. The inspiration came from conversations between producer Murray Thom and Tim Harper, and Frizzell, about Salvation Army bands playing in suburban streets in decades gone by, which Frizzell had “very vivid memories of”.
“I was going for solemn. I mean, the grey sky tinged with the evening light,” Frizzell says. “There’s no accidents, mate. That wonky letterbox, everything’s slightly forlorn, and the boy there with the shorts, which is autobiographical – that’s actually me at 10 years-old, standing right there in the middle, anchored against that circle of black-clad figures.
“I got so carried away I started painting onto this tracing paper and then it got sillier and sillier and the paper was buckling and I kept on thinking ‘I should trace this on to decent paper’, but I couldn’t stop and yeah, it was a giddy rush that one I tell ya.
“It’s just like anything else, the personal quickly becomes the universal if it’s sincere enough. A lot of people don’t realise that, you don’t actually have to fake it, you just go for it and if it’s genuine it will connect.”
Frizzell is honoured to be an awards finalist despite the intrinsic subjectivity of ranking and rewarding art and said working with musical entrepreneur Murray Thom, was “fascinating in itself”.
“He’s very, what’s the word? Dynamic. He’s a force of nature in a curious way and I thought he sounded like a maniac on the phone. I thought ‘christ almighty, is this guy for real?’ He said ‘I’d better come down in person’ [to Hawke’s Bay] and I sort of hung up the phone and he seemed to appear at the door in the same moment.
“He’s a very straight up guy to work with, everything he said he’d make happen, he made happen. It was an amazing project I loved everything about it.”
Jaime Robertson is another finalist in the album cover category for his work on neo-classical musician and composer Rhian Sheehan’s A Quiet Divide, which features a shadowy figure and the outlines of a forest.
Robertson had worked with Mikee Tucker and his company Loop Recordings, “a small label that releases some of the best music in the country”, before.
Tucker kept Robertson in mind when he knew Sheehan was making the new album.
“I wasn’t familiar with his sound,” Robertson says, “but I was familiar with his reputation and I knew that when he made an album it was quite a rare thing, and when he does he really commits to it. For me designing a cover for an album, I have to have the music, I need to know what I’m doing. For me it’s the ultimate pre-requisite to make sure I know what I’m trying to represent. A lot of people don’t work that way, but for me to get the most out of the project I need it.
The over-riding concept of the album was nostalgia, although Sheehan also gave him a list of words that were other themes threaded through the work.
Robertson says the main image, a highly contrasted silhouette of Sheehan, with mist and trees inside the silhouette frame, was only one of many pieces created for the project.
“I focused very much on the vinyl cover. LPs are the ultimate for a music designer, because you have this large format, printed artefact that will live on beyond the release day. It’s something that is real. For me it’s the Mecca of what I like to work in.”
* The Artisan Awards are the ‘behind the scenes’ awards in the industry, recognising everything from artwork to music teacher of the year. In its fourth year, the winners will be announced at Massey University’s School of Music and Creative Media Production in Wellington on November 4. The awards will be streamed at facebook.com/cocamassey from 7pm.